The Graying of America’s Prisons


12.09.09wheelchairFrank Soffen, now 70 years old, has lived more than half his life in prison, and will likely die there.

Sentenced to life for second-degree murder, Soffen has suffered four heart attacks and is confined to a wheelchair. He has lately been held in the assisted living wing of Massachusetts' Norfolk prison. Because of his failing health and his exemplary record over his 37 years behind bars–which includes rescuing a guard being threatened by other inmates–Soffen has been held up as a candidate for release on medical and compassionate grounds.

He is physically incapable of committing a violent crime, has already participated in pre-release and furlough programs, and has a supportive family and a place to live with his son. One of the members of the Massachusetts state parole board spoke in favor of his release. But in 2006 the board voted to deny Soffen parole. He will not be eligible for review for another five years.

The “tough on crime” posturing and policymaking that have dominated American politics for more than three decades have left behind a grim legacy. Longer sentences and harsher parole standards have led to overcrowded prisons, overtaxed state budgets, and devastated families and communities. Now, yet another consequence is becoming visible in the nation's prisons and jails: a huge and ever-growing numbers of geriatric inmates.

Increasingly, the cells and dormitories of the United States are filled with old, often sick men and women. They hobble around the tiers with walkers or roll in wheelchairs fill prison infirmaries. They fill prison infirmaries, assisted living wings, and hospices faster than the state and federal governments can build them–and since many are dying behind bars, they are filling the mortuaries and graveyards as well.

The care these aging prisoners receive, while often grossly inadequate, is nonetheless cripplingly expensive–so much so that some recession-strapped states are for the first time seriously considering releasing older terminally ill and mentally ill prisoners rather than pay the heavy price for their warehousing. It remains to be seen what will happen when such fiscal concerns run head on into America's taste for punitive justice. A recent report by the Vera Institute made this clear.

Politicians no doubt did not imagine this Dickensian landscape of the elderly incarcerated when they voted to lengthen sentences and impose mandatory minimums three or four decades ago. But their actions are yielding an inevitable outcome. While the graying of the prison population to some extent reflects the changing demographics of the populace at large, it owes considerably more to changes in law and policy. And this is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

Growing Old Behind Bars

According to the Sentencing Project, the United States imprisons five times as many people as it did 30 years ago and more than seven times as many as it did 40 years ago. Our criminal justice system now keeps 2.3 million people behind bars–about half of them for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes. Twenty-five years ago, there were 34,000 prisoners serving life sentences; today the number is more than 140,000. The fact that each person is spending a longer stretch behind bars means that the falling crime rates of the 1990s do not translate into fewer inmates. It also means that more and more people who committed offenses in their 20s or even their teens are growing old and dying in prison.

The situation is particularly stark in California, Texas and Florida, which have large prison populations with cells crammed to overflowing because of harsh sentencing laws. In California, the population of prisoners over 55 doubled in the ten years from 1997 to 2006. About 20 percent of California prisoners are serving life sentences, and over 10 percent are serving life without the possibility of parole. Louisiana's prison system now holds more than 5,000 people over the age of 50–a three-fold increase in the last 12 years.

While 50 or 55 may not be old by conventional standards, people age faster behind bars than they do on the outside: Studies have shown that prisoners in their 50s are on average physiologically 10 to 15 years older than their chronological age. Older prisoners require substantial medical care, because of harsh life conditions as well as age. Inmates begin to have trouble climbing to upper bunks, walking, standing on line, and handling other parts of the prison routine. They suffer from early losses of hearing and eyesight, have high rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, and are susceptible to falls.

A recent study by Brie Williams and Rita Albraldes, published as a chapter in the book Growing Older: Challenges of Prison and Reentry for the Aging Population, found that in addition to the chronic diseases that increase with age, older offenders have problems such as paraplegia because of the legacy of gunshot wounds. Many have advanced liver disease, renal disease, or hepatitis. Still others suffer from HIV-AIDS, and many more from drug and alcohol abuse. Living under prison conditions, they are more likely to get pneumonia and flu.

Many prisons are notorious for not taking their inmates' health complaints seriously, and there is anecdotal evidence this problem may be compounded when prisoners are elderly. A doctor under contract in one southern prison told me in a recent interview how a diabetic man's illness was misdiagnosed, resulting in months of excruciating pain and the amputation of toes and part of one foot. Back in prison, the man asked for prosthetic shoes so he could get around by walking; his request was denied.

Another elderly prisoner complained of an earache which went untreated for months. When it became unbearably painful, the prisoner was shipped to a local hospital emergency room, under contract to the prison. There the doctors found the earache was brain cancer–and by then, too advanced to treat.

The exploding prison population has further undermined the already questionable quality of inmate medical care. In California, which has the nation's largest number of state prisoners, a panel of federal judges earlier this year found that the state of medical care was so poor that it violated the constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and in danger of routinely costing prisoners their lives. The only solution, the judges said, was to reduce prison overcrowding caused by the states draconian mandatory sentences; it recommended shortening sentences and reforming parole, which they believed would have no impact on public safety; it has given California three years to comply.

NEXT: Challenging the status quo for geriatric prisoners

James Ridgeway is the senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones.

Photo by z1784 via Flickr.

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